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Alicia Garey Headshot

Starting Over

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Last year at this time, I had no idea what was coming my way. I had no idea I was sick. I felt great. I had all the energy in the world, my life was just fine. Sure, I felt the urgency of getting a little older and pushing my goals, but I was busy with family life and planning my future, as we all do.

I will never, ever forget that day. The day I received that phone call. The phone call I answered in my kitchen, telling me to schedule a follow up to check something they saw on the mammogram. I never entertained the idea that it was even remotely possible that I would ever receive that phone call. I will never, ever forget the sinking feeling I had at that moment. I will never, ever forget the look on the doctor's face at the radiology office, telling me she was "concerned" about what she was seeing on the ultrasound. It was not me. It was not me sitting on that table, hearing her say what she was saying.

I don't think about those days very often anymore, but I can recall how I felt in an instant. I need to put that away somewhere; far away in a mental file with a lock. The radiology doctors and staff were so very kind. The day of the biopsy, they could not have been more gentle. Still, I cried tears of fear and discomfort. I felt so vulnerable, so unable to understand how to process my emotions. In the early days of tests and follow ups, before a diagnosis comes back, there is a constant push to hope for the very best. It seems a natural mechanism we all have (and a perfectly good one). Especially when there are no outward signs of illness, it is incredibly difficult to fathom. My brain has had to do somersaults to accept my new reality. As I look back now, there is little I would do differently in the course of medical treatment. Each step I took to proceed was accomplished carefully, and thankfully, with some of the finest doctors by the highest standard. UCLA has saved my life, and clearly, the lives of many others.

I realize now how many times I had driven past buildings where people were being treated and had no idea. I became one of those people. I stand back, looking at the year that has passed, and still struggle to find the words to describe it. Everything I knew about my life changed. Everything I do changed. But now, I am still here, using the same computer, continuing on with my life. The year has been extraordinary. It has been brutal, ridiculous, painful, strange and uncomfortable. It has been many things. But here I am.

I will walk with this experience into my next chapters. At some point, this subject will not be the focus of my life anymore. I will blend back in with the human race. My hair will continue to grow and I will accept the permanent physical changes that are forever part of who I am now. Sure, there will be anxiety about ongoing checkups. Part of my new life includes learning how to manage that fear. Some people have commented to me how wonderful it is that this is "behind me." Yes, so much is. But it lingers. The wonderful distractions of each new day help to unwind from the worst of it. Living beyond what has happened in a way that is healthy and productive is just as important as it was the very first day I began chemotherapy.

The steps back into a good life should not be taken for granted. Getting back to "normal" takes some time. And I still have more to do. Three or four more visits every three weeks to the infusion center for Herceptin, and Tamoxifen for five years. I wonder when taking that little pill will not trigger a flood of mixed emotion. There continues to be a need to resolve what I have experienced. To accept it. To embrace it somehow, and to continue walking forward. I have expressed gratitude time and time again. Beyond gratitude there is space for renewal. Beyond gratitude there is even time to grieve for the person I was before my physical body became sick. Everything I experienced b.c. (before cancer) and a.c. (after cancer) is a useful tool to get to the next place. Even though I had no understanding of what was to come, I can find my balance again. I can even be better. I can pick up where I left off, with a new set of tools. The intense energy and focus it took to get through the past year can be slowly redirected. I wish no one ever had to go through what I went through. I wish I could take it all away. We all do. Every person on the planet wishes this. Thankfully, the medical community has made great strides. But more needs to be done. Procedures need to better accommodate the human body. That much I know for sure.

I don't have a crystal ball so I don't know what lies ahead. I'm not even sure I'd want one. All I can do is trust myself. Trust that I can live fully. Trust that I can feel without being afraid. And if I am afraid, trust that it is OK. Trust that I'll get through whatever comes next. Goodbye, 2012. Don't call my house anymore.